If you want a good indicator of how the #Patriots might attack this #Jaguars D go watch them play Jimmy G and the #49ers in Week 16. SF opened up the MOF with play calling and worked the underneath stuff with their quick receivers. A lot of slants, outs, flat routes.— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 15, 2018
We saw the Patriots take some of the elements of the 49ers offense that day, with a spread 21-personnel package with fullback James Develin on the field and many spread concepts out of 11-personnel that aimed to attack the weaknesses in the Jaguars’ zone coverages.
The Eagles, have one of the NFL’s premier pass rushes, leading the NFL in pressure percentage (41%), total pressures (271), and quarterback hits (112) in 2017. They also have an underrated secondary, led by Pro Bowler Malcolm Jenkins, talented third-year corner Ronald Darby, and one of 2017’s breakout players in slot corner Patrick Robinson.
In all, the Eagles defense ranked fourth in points allowed (18.4 PPG), fifth in DVOA, and allowed only one team to score over 30 points in a game against them this season (Rams), tied for the fewest such games in the NFL.
So how can the Patriots exploit the Eagles’ defense and win the franchises sixth Super Bowl?
Well, believe it or not, the Patriots may have to steal a few things from the dynasty's biggest nemesis, Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Yes, Manning, the only quarterback to defeat Tom Brady’s Patriots in a Super Bowl, may have found the key to beating the Eagles’ elite defense.
Now some may find this hard to believe given the state of the Giants this past season. But as divisional opponents so often do, the Giants played the Eagles as tough as anyone this past season. In fact, the two games the 13-3 Eagles played against the 3-13 Giants were decided by a combined eight points in two Philly wins.
All while Manning was responsible for the two highest yardage totals against the Eagles defense all season, throwing for 366 yards in Week 3 and 434 yards in Week 15. And the Week 15 performance came without Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. and with an interim coaching staff after Ben McAdoo was fired two weeks earlier.
So how did Manning and the Giants offense do it? Well, here’s the statistical takeaways and then we’ll get into the film.
Manning and the Giants did a fantastic job of slowing down the Eagles’ pass rush by getting the ball out of Manning’s hands as quickly as possible. In Week 15, Manning’s time to throw was a blistering 2.17 seconds, and when they did take shots downfield, they were designed to give Manning max protection, and they were still quick-decision throws.
Second, Manning took his shots downfield but moved the ball by attacking the short and intermediate area of the field, sound familiar? Here’s Manning’s passing chart from the Week 15 game:
What the Giants discovered, and what the Falcons and Vikings weren’t able to replicate, was that the Eagles pass defense isn’t as strong in four key areas: defending double-moves on the outside (will get to that later), covering the slot/middle of the field, covering the opponents depth receivers, and preventing yards after the catch.
The Eagles defense ranked in the top ten in DVOA covering passes to both the right and left boundaries (second to the right, seventh to the left), but ranked 19th in DVOA on passes over the middle.
Furthermore, the Eagles defense ranked second and third respectively in total QBR when opponents targeted their running backs and wide receivers but ranked 28th when opponents targeted their tight ends, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
If healthy, Rob Gronkowski could be the difference maker in Super Bowl LII. The Eagles have been great defending wide receivers and running backs, but have struggled against tight ends. pic.twitter.com/5qvxFZ8xgL— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 23, 2018
And the box score stats back that up, too, with Giants slot receiver Sterling Shepard (139 yards, TD in Week 15) and tight end Evan Engram (87 yards in Week 15) pacing the Giants in the passing game.
They also ranked well against #1 and #2 wide receivers, ranking seventh in DVOA against the opponents #1 receiver and first in covering the opponents #2. However, they ranked 22nd in DVOA in defending all other wide receivers.
Finally, 52.1% of the passing yards the Eagles allowed this season came after the catch, which was the higher than every other team in the NFL besides the Cleveland Browns. In all, the Eagles surrendered 5.6 yards after catch per reception in 2017, which is the seventh-most in the NFL.
So there are the numbers. Let’s get to the tape now and see how the Giants hung over 500 yards of total offense and 29 points on the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent, both, by the way, were season-highs in a game for New York.
The Giants did throw deep on this Eagles defense a few times in Week 15, but the key to their success when doing so came down to timing and deception. The Eagles corners play an aggressive style on the outside and are constantly looking to jump routes to create turnovers. The Giants saw this on tape and counteracted it by incorporating double-moves by their outside receivers.
Manning’s only completion of over 20 air yards, a 25-yard pass to wide receiver Roger Lewis, was a prime of example of this. First, you can see how hard Ronald Darby bites on the curl route, and how smoothly Lewis transitions into the route down the sideline. Second, check out the protection scheme on this play for Eli.
The Giants coaching staff knows that they’re going to take a shot to Lewis on this play, so they max protect for Manning. They leave a tight end on the end of the line in to block and have the running back stay in to protect as well. The Giants took their shots quickly and they bought more time for Manning with their protections up front.
For good measure, here’s a Tavarres King touchdown that came later in the game on a similar double-move just on the other side of the field.
Attacking the Middle of the Field
The Eagles had their hands full with Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram in Week 15, and a lot of that came against Philly’s zone coverages. The Eagles and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz are predominantly a zone team. They are in zone coverages on 46.1% of passing plays, compared to just 31.8% man coverage, according to PFF.
Schwartz likes to play zone on the back end while he unleashes an array of exotic pass rushing schemes, and blitzes, in the front seven. However, that makes the Eagles susceptible to in-breaking routes over the middle and seam routes by tight ends and inside receivers.
Here are two examples of tight end Evan Engram producing big plays for the Giants attacking the seams against the Eagles’ cover-3 and cover-2 zones.
I don’t expect the Eagles to play much cover-2 in the Super Bowl, as they’ll want to have more bodies in the middle of the field, but the Pats will likely see a lot of cover-3 with the corners on the outside operating with man principles.
Another way to attack the middle of the field while the Eagles are in cover-3 is to run intermediate crossing routes that clear the linebacker level but cut across the face of the three-deep defensive backs.
In this example, the Giants motion wide receiver Roger Lewis inside and then run him on a deep dig route over the middle, a route Danny Amendola ran on repeat against the Jags.
In fact, that’s the exact same route Amendola ran on the third and 18 conversion in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game.
Here’s another example that is reminiscent of Amendola. The Giants overload the middle of the Eagles’ zone with the tight end running through the space that Shepard eventually occupies. Shepard stops on this route over the middle instead of continuing to the sideline, but this play has the same goal as Amendola’s first touchdown catch against the Jags.
Yards After Catch
The Eagles defense can be smothering due to its aggressiveness, but they also can leave themselves vulnerable in man coverage. The Giants knew this and were able to take advantage.
The best example came on Sterling Shepard’s 67-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The perfect answer to the Eagles’ aggressive man coverage is pick routes, and to be more specific, mesh concepts. Mesh concepts have taken over the NFL in recent seasons due to their high success rate against man coverage.
As you see here, the concept is designed to create traffic at a mesh point typically in the middle of the field, and that can generate natural picks and traffic that’s difficult to maneuver for defensive backs.
The Giants get a legal pick on the concept from their tight end, and Shepard is immediately in space when he catches the ball, and it’s all his skill in the open field after that.
Here’s another example of how to take advantage of the lack of bodies on the back end for the Eagles at times. The Eagles are in cover-1 man, which means that the outside corners are essentially on an island.
The Giants call a quick slant from the boundary receiver with a designed release by the tight end into the flat to open up the throwing lane. It’s then up to King to break one tackle, and he’s going to be off to the races.
King, by the way, had just 240 yards and three touchdowns on the season but had 70 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. Remember that stat about the Eagles defending their opponents’ depth receivers?
The Patriots didn’t exactly listen to all of us that were pounding the table for a Niner-like gameplan when they played the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
Due to the personnel they have at receiver, the Patriots have morphed into a vertical passing attack on offense. Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski, and Phillip Dorsett are all best utilized as deep-threat receivers.
In fact, this season, the Patriots rank 24th in the NFL with just 43.6% of their passing yards coming after the catch, of course with the absence of Julian Edelman looming large in that category. But we did see the Pats go back to a more dink-and-dunk offense against the Titans.
And against the Jaguars, the Pats threw in a wrinkle rooted from the 49ers’ game plan when they came out in a spread look out of 21-personnel with fullback James Develin and a pass-catching running back on the field, which was an incredibly successful personnel package when used.
It allowed Tom Brady the flexibility to find mismatches in the Jaguars’ zone coverages, as they weren’t tracking the Patriots’ best receivers with their top coverage guys.
For example, the Patriots got Brandin Cooks lined up across from a linebacker on his huge 31-yard completion on the Patriots’ first drive, while James White and James Develin had Pro Bowl corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye lined up across from them at the snap.
It’s impossible to deny the success that Manning had against an Eagles defense that stifled most of their opponents in 2017. And it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that a divisional opponent that plays the Eagles twice a year might know a thing or two about how to beat them.
The proof is in the numbers and the tape: throw quickly, throw over the middle, attack their depth, and create after the catch. The Patriots may not be as reliant on yards after the catch this season, but we’ve seen them attack the necessary areas of the field to follow the Giants blueprint.
And they have the depth and talent in the right places to do it as well.